Let me state it plainly: the desire for balance and the desperate need of journalists to appear neutral will be the death of us. In August, the New York Times reported on a speech given by President Trump in response to the murder of 22 people by a man who believed he needed to halt the ‘Hispanic invasion of Texas’. Its headline: ‘Trump urges unity versus racism’.
This from a man who had announced his candidacy for president by referring to Hispanic asylum seekers as murderers and rapists, and whose re-election campaign has placed more than 2000 adverts on Facebook referring to an invasion of immigrants at the border. Journalistic neutrality appears to have no memory. Let us not pretend either that this is only an American problem.
In September, Sky News’s Paul Murray was granted an ‘interview’ with Donald Trump. His questions included, ‘Did you have a good day with your Aussie mate?’ and ‘What do you want to say to all your many Australian supporters who wish you nothing but the best in November 2020?’ Fortunately, Murray is not representative of all journalists.
And yet in the press conference with Trump and Morrison, Australian journalists asked: ‘Mr Trump, can you talk about the exciting new space program to the moon, sir? And what does that mean for both countries?’; ‘Have you invited the President to Australia? And have you introduced him to the term “bubble” yet?’; and ‘Mr President, the last Australian prime minister to receive an official state visit was described by the then president as “a man of steel”. How do you describe our Prime Minister?’
That’s not what you’d call holding someone to account, and sadly it’s typical: the model of journalism we have used for more than 100 years has been tested in this era of bald-faced political fabrication, dissembling and existential environmental threat. It has been found utterly wanting. Wanting because journalists too often contrive conflict in order to position themselves in the middle while also demanding a spectacle.
Wanting because journalists are a narrow group of largely non-working class, university-educated white people who are largely insulated from the problems of racism and inequality. Wanting because one media organisation in particular has given itself over to conspiracy theories and a range of cynical and destructive social positions in the cause of profit, while hypocritically demanding balance from all others.
Yes, there is good work still being done, and perhaps that work is undervalued or discounted, but on the issues of racism and extremism, on climate change and the slow degeneration of political systems, it is impossible to argue that the media has had a broadly positive impact.
Surely if our journalism model worked there would be no hesitation in stating that the media—and the political media specifically—was a force for public good, which informed the public and fostered action on issues such as climate change and the reduction of racism as a political weapon.
When we look at the past decade or more and the rise of extremism and the failure of climate change policy, it is hard not to think of political journalism without recalling Peter Cook’s faint praise of satire: ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War’.
• • •
When you ask political journalists what their role is, they generally give a variant of the answer given by former News Corp senior journalist and current vice-president of the National Press Club, Steve Lewis. Lewis told Judith Betts, in an interview for her PhD thesis ‘The Battle of the Narratives: Australian media agendas and the Iraq war’, that ‘when you’re reporting something you have to try and be as dispassionate as you can’.
Or perhaps they go with the views of Sky News political editor David Speers, who noted in his speech for the 2017 Press Freedom Australia Dinner that there is ‘a vital role for journalists who try as hard as they damn well can to be straight down the middle and hold both sides to account. Journalists’, he argued, ‘need to be journalists, not players. Not Twitter warriors.’
Both sound like worthy aims, and yet we need only look at Speers’s own organisation at the time, Sky News, or Lewis’s former employer, to know they are rather naive. The reality is that journalists are players. And if they don’t believe they are then that is a major part of the problem. They decide what is news, give emphasis, add tone and determine which issues get prominence. Yet what enrages political journalists the most is claims of bias, because they see detached neutrality as the pinnacle of professional achievement.
There are multiple problems facing journalism: shrinking revenue, competition from Facebook and Google, the 24-hour news cycle, the need to keep up with social media, the shrinking ability to investigate or even report on a variety of subjects, the growth of fake news sites and the insidious presence of deepfakes; all these and more hinder good journalism.
But more ‘straight down the middle’ political journalism is not the antidote. We are in a world where fake news or extremist outlets will push their agendas and target the journalists of mainstream outlets, where political parties will organise their own coverage of events, and where a cacophony of voices question reality. Do we really think being neutral and detached will counter these forces? It is even odder to believe this when you realise that political journalism is not as in thrall to the middle as it likes to think. What it really wants is noise and conflict.
During the 2019 federal election campaign, ABC reporter Jade Macmillan wrote an article that perfectly demonstrated the failure of this political journalism model. She wrote that ‘murmurings among the travelling press pack that Mr Shorten’s campaign appears to lack the dynamism of the Prime Minister’s have only grown louder during the last week’.
‘Scott Morrison is constantly captured “doing things”—playing sport, picking carrots, going on a ride at the Royal Easter Show and even shearing a sheep.’ By contrast, ‘Mr Shorten still goes for morning runs but mostly likes to play to his strengths, drawing on his union background to speak to workers at construction sites and hospitals.’
It’s rare to see a journalist so openly craving amusement—common though to see one admitting that the coverage is bad—while simultaneously arguing they are powerless to do anything about it. As Macmillan noted, ‘leaders can’t be everywhere, meeting every-one, and despite the growing influence of carefully managed social media accounts, there’s still value in maximising air time on traditional platforms’. But value for whom? Surely for the leaders rather than the voters.
Yet other than the murmurings uttered by the usual types on Twitter (people like me), the article created no great discussion, or introspection among the journalists covering the campaign. It slid into the ether replaced soon after by another article, this time by Michael Rowland, on journalists complaining about people on social media abusing them for their poor coverage.
But Macmillan was not some outlier in the campaign. On 20 April Chris Uhlmann tweeted: ‘There is some very sharp work being done by the Coalition campaign team. The Opposition leader is pictured on a carousel at St Kilda and an hour later the PM says “Bill Shorten is on a cost merry-go-round.” Marriage of words and pictures for TV for those who want them #auspol’.
Consider the thinking behind the line ‘for those who want them’. ‘Those’ are not the public but journalists. That a senior member of the press gallery would think such a thing was worth praising is a pretty damming insight into how cloistered the coverage of federal politics can become. It is a coverage so wrapped in the need for spectacle that journalists cannot prevent themselves from viewing the world through that lens even when their own experience should have them doing otherwise.
In March 2017, Sally McManus gave her first interview as the secretary of the ACTU with Leigh Sales on The 7.30. She replied to one question about illegal industrial action saying, ‘I believe in the rule of law where the law is fair, when the law is right. But when it’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it.’
Immediately journalists such as Fairfax’s James Massola were aghast: ‘Could new ACTU boss Sally McManus have handed the Coalition a bigger free kick? This is a major headache for Bill Shorten,’ he tweeted. It was considered a free kick because Massola and others knew that her answer would be misreported by the Liberal Party as supporting the breaking of any law, and they further knew they would write those stories and demand a response from Bill Shorten.
And yet Massola and his Fairfax colleagues knew only too well the context of her comments because less than a year earlier Fairfax journalists had themselves conducted an illegal industrial action—and would do again two months later. They knew what McManus meant but instead they chose the path of ‘straight down the middle’: detached and purposefully ignorant.
Massola responded to criticisms by Guardian Australia journalist Paul Karp by asking, ‘imagine, if you dare, the reaction if one of the big employer groups had said that’. Well, if a leading employer had said they were going to support illegal industrial action that would be a story. But you can see Massola shifting the statement out of its context in order to justify the reporting not because of its accuracy but because of a hypothetical requirement to be balanced. The balance defence is frequently used to explain poor reporting.
Earlier this year during a shooting in Sydney, Sky News’s Laura Jayes reported events on Twitter as they were occurring. She was criticised quite loudly for one tweet that said: ‘BREAKING Witnesses say he clearly shouted “Allah Akbar” and shouted at police “shoot me”.’ She later argued in an article on news.com.au that she ‘tweeted reliable but unconfirmed information as it came to hand’. One of her earliest tweets on the incident was ‘Unconfirmed reports of 6 people stabbed’. Not exactly reliable.
Jayes argued that ‘Most people digested this information [the Allah Akbar tweet] as part of a complex situation and accepted that it was a detail that only made up part of the story’. But her ‘Allah Akbar’ tweet was seen and shared by ten times as many people as her other tweets. And let’s not be naive, Jayes knew how the tweet would be received—there is a reason why she led that tweet alone with ‘breaking’ in caps.
To suggest that ‘the detractors made the link to terrorism and Islamic extremism, not me’ is extremely disingenuous, emphasised by her own conclusion later that ‘perhaps the keyboard warriors should be asking why a man with mental health issues with no strong religious affiliation to Islam decides to utter the words “Allah Akbar”.’ Perhaps Jayes could ask her colleague Rowan Dean, who appeared on Sky News later that day saying, ‘This is Islamic terrorism. He’s yelling Allahu Akbar, he’s waving around a knife, that’s enough evidence you need that he was inspired by the ideology of radical Islam.’ So much for digesting a ‘complex situation’.
Jayes then fell back on the balance defence, arguing, ‘I wonder what these same keyboard warriors would have said if Mert Ney had shouted “death to all Muslims”. I’m pretty sure they would’ve wanted me to report that.’
A key element in the defence of journalist practice seems to be the ability to invent a hypothetical opposite. And yet even worse is that journalists’ love of balance is trumped by the professional necessity of conflict and spectacle—two elements of routine news-making too often regarded as more important than informing the public.
Take the ‘car crash’ interview. Often it is nothing more than a politician failing to deliver their lines adequately. Consider Mike Willesee’s famous ‘birthday cake interview’. What did it reveal? Was anyone sitting at home that night glad Willesee had asked his question because buying a birthday cake was their big shopping decision each week? The issue was not that John Hewson didn’t know his own policy, it’s that he couldn’t explain it simply (because the policy was not simple).
Willesee suggested that ‘if the answer to a birthday cake is so complex, you do have a problem with the overall GST’. Thus the fault was not the policy but the sales pitch. Did Willesee know the answer? If so why not tell the viewers—is it not the journalist’s job to inform? The same thing occurred more recently with George Brandis and his ‘car crash’ interview with David Speers on metadata. Brandis did eventually get to a correct explanation of the concept, but it was a terribly bumbling answer. And yes, I know, you have to hold them to account. Fine. So Brandis had a car-crash interview, Speers won a Walkley. The metadata legislation passed without any problem whatsoever.
Did anything change other than ministers immediately being given a quick tutorial on how to answer the question if asked in the future? Speers is a brilliant interviewer—he will often play dim in order to give politicians rope to hang themselves, at which point he reveals he knows more about the policy than the politician does. But too often other interviewers and journalists play dumb not because they are hoping to reveal ignorance but because they think it is their role just to give politicians a chance to respond to allegations they know are false.
The ABC’s Patricia Karvelas interviewed Greens senator Larissa Waters during the election campaign in the context of Scott Morrison’s statements about the Greens being destructive to Australia. Karvelas adopted Morrison’s phrasing of ‘death tax’ with no sense of it being anything other than the appropriate term.
Karvelas and I had a bit of back and forth over this on Twitter when I mentioned that ‘death tax’ was not a neutral expression. Karvelas argued she gave Waters an opportunity to refute the claim and make her case and that her use of the phrase ‘death tax’ was in the context of Morrison having used it. But there is no way that asking ‘will you be taking death taxes as a policy platform to the election’ is anything other than treating the phrase ‘death tax’ as a neutral moniker, which it plainly is not. It never fails to surprise me how journalists, who make their living using words, are so ignorant of their complexity.
When the interview was later repackaged for ABC radio, Karvelas introduced it by noting that ‘the Greens have long argued for the reintroduction of an inheritance or death tax levied on the estates of the wealthy’. This made for greater context and better balance. But the real story of the ‘death taxes’ was that the Liberal Party had moved to a position of openly pushing lies as a campaign strategy. After the election, Liberal MP Tim Wilson told Karvelas the ‘death tax’ scare campaign was legitimate because ‘Labor didn’t have that policy but there are people within the party who want that policy’.
In such a world—with its echoes of the Brexit and Trump campaigns—a ‘neutral’ journalistic position is actively damaging. Where is the worth of asking tough questions of one side that doesn’t care about being caught in a lie, and then asking the other side questions based on those same spurious accusations in order to appear unbiased? At some point journalists need to realise that their desire to appear balanced is being used against them.
• • •
Our model of political journalism struggles with extremism. In September 2019 Tony Abbott attended a conference in Budapest in which he praised the far-right prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, and warned about ‘military age’ male immigrants ‘swarming’ Europe. It was a clear use of racist tropes, and yet does anyone think media organisations will stop treating his views as worthy of serious coverage?
In 2016 Abbott spoke at another conference, this time in the United States with the Alliance Defending Freedom. It was mostly reported as a ‘controversial Christian lobby group’, yet it is an extreme conservative group that, as Guardian Australia’s Jason Wilson reported, funds a movement that ‘holds that society should be governed according to
Old Testament law’. Just a bit ‘controversial’. And yet media tiptoes around—ever worried about being seen to be biased, as we watch extreme right-wing views become more the norm.
The nadir of neutral, detached journalism occurred earlier this year when ABC’s Four Corners devoted an entire episode to present an interview of Steve Bannon by Sarah Ferguson. Ferguson tackled claims of racism against Bannon, saying, ‘There’s no evidence that that’s what you are.’ It was a jaw-dropping moment for anyone who had followed Bannon’s career with any interest. Rather than responding to criticism of her interview, Ferguson defended instead the right to give Bannon a chance to speak, tweeting a photo of the pair of them after the interview smiling together with the caption ‘What is wrong with this: NOTHING’.
Ferguson is easily one of the finest journalists in Australia and everyone can have a bad day, but hers was made worse because she was unable to admit error. As ever, when a high-profile journalist is attacked, what followed was the usual circling of the wagons by other journalists. What should have happened was a rethink of whether the neutral model works with people such as Bannon.
As David Neiwert wrote for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, ‘It’s extremely difficult for anyone to provide a platform for an ideologue like him without simultaneously letting them extol ideas that are toxic to any “marketplace of ideas” on which that platform depends.’
And so it starts with Bannon being told by one of ABC’s top journalists that he is not a racist and before you know it Nine journalist Peter Hartcher is reporting Bannon’s opinion on the Australian election in a column, and then you have BBC radio asking his views on Brexit. At that point, it’s impossible to argue that Bannon shouldn’t be given a hearing—he clearly is now part of the mainstream; his views have been normalised. Congratulations to all involved, you really held him to account.
It is tough for journalists who live by the maxim that sunshine is the best disinfectant to realise, as American communications scholar Whitney Phillips argues, that sunshine also makes things grow. Sometimes the better part of the journalist’s job is not to report, not to interview, not to hold to account. Phillips suggests that editorial staff should ask a series of questions: if I don’t report this will the story go away? If yes, then why are you reporting it? Would our knowledge be improved by debunking the lies being spouted? Is there a political or social-action point that would help people recognise manipulation campaigns? Finally, is the risk of entrenching/rewarding the falsehood in some stories worth dislodging the falsehood in others?
These questions take us away from the standard ‘we need to hold people to account’ position and move us closer to ‘does this person deserve being held to account, or will my doing so merely assist their cause?’ If your model of journalism sees you unconcerned whether interviewing an extremist will lead to those views being more widely spread, because you feel it is more important they be seen to be ‘held to account’, then fine. But at least have the honesty to make that case.
• • •
A major reason for the failure of action on climate change is journalism. In a mediated environment, we cannot lay the fault purely at the feet of political parties. There are two clear failures. The first is News Corp outlets that have given themselves over to conspiracy theorists and cranks for the purpose of profit. That is a deep problem which will ensure that when the history of media is written, Australians will have to reckon with the destructive role played by Rupert Murdoch. But to an extent News Corp’s coverage is just the perverted result of the detached model of journalism.
The second failure is that of other journalists desperate to appear neutral, and yet where the desire for noise and conflict cruels any attempts a political party makes to achieve real action on climate change. Journalists hate to say who ‘should’ win. And you can understand why. To be able to make such a call you need to research policy, you need to have understanding of context, and you need to be willing to defend your position. Journalists would mostly prefer to defend their neutrality than their knowledge of an issue, even if doing so reveals their ignorance. Better to be ignorant than biased.
Yet we need journalists to take a position when it comes to climate change because the neutral, detached role is inherently biased towards inaction. All action to reduce climate change will create losers and opportunities to focus on tripping politicians up over their inability to articulate policy rather than on the worth of the policy. Do we want the public to know about climate change or to spend hours seeing if we can confuse politicians?
And on the other side, for those desiring to do nothing, climate change is the greatest joy of all because of that complexity and the creation of losers. To lie does not require research; to disprove a lie does.
Most journalists are generalists with little scientific training or knowledge of how the energy market operates, so when Scott Morrison suggested in parliament in September that ‘when we came to government there was a 700 million-tonne deficit when it came to meeting our 2020 Kyoto targets, and we set to work immediately and turned that around, and we will now exceed the Kyoto 2020 targets by 367 million tonnes’, he sounded like a man with the facts at his fingertips, even though he was touching not facts but fibs.
Morrison is of course technically correct, but logically false. The 700 million-tonne deficit was merely a forecast—a forecast that was changed after the 2013 election purely because more data was available and also the new prediction took into account carry-over credits that had not previously been counted.
So it was a reduction in a prediction based on events that occurred prior to the 2013 election and a new method of counting. And yet even here you can see the effort required to counter this line. Doing so during an interview—let alone a doorstop—is difficult and, given the lack of time to fire questions at Morrison or any of the government MPs spouting this line, generally unlikely to occur. And sure we can fact-check statements, but that does not stop anything any more. The Prime Minister has continued to mislead the public—and parliament—about the ‘turnaround’ in emissions, despite the ABC having fact-checked the statement.
As Trump has proved, and other politicians around the world have noted, the penalty for lying has become much reduced on all issues. But this stems not from Trump but from the fact that for more than two decades now, any penalty for lying about climate change has been almost non-existent. If you can lie about the issue that threatens to damage the planet and our very way of life, then what can’t you lie about? Ask yourself: is there any statement so ludicrous about climate change that a politician from the conservative side of politics could utter that would see them lose their job?
In September the minister for water in New South Wales, Melinda Pavey, told the Australian that ‘the drought could not solely be blamed on climate change as she believed there was a period around 500AD when it did not rain for 60 years’. Here’s the thing: that statement was reported only in paragraph eight of the article, and was essentially a side note.
Too many journalists let such views pass, or allow themselves to be fobbed off with the other standard line from politicians that they believe in climate change but that Australia can’t do anything by itself so there is no point. As a friend of mine noted, suggesting Australia’s emissions don’t matter is like saying you don’t mind if one person urinates in your swimming pool because it is insignificant compared to the amount of water—or, even worse, saying that given everyone else is urinating there is nothing wrong with you doing so as well.
Yet if you really do value detached neutrality, climate change should be an absolute godsend.
Eight months before the 2019 election, the IPCC issued a warning that unless action was taken to reduce emissions by 2030, global temperatures will rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, at which point there will be no chance of keeping temperatures below an increase of 2°C.
That was a pretty stark warning, and yet for the most part it received scant mention in the election coverage and was never raised in the leaders’ interviews on ABC’s 7.30, for example. The program’s review of the ALP and LNP’s climate change policies contained no explanation of why the ALP was pursuing a cut of 45 per cent in emissions. There was no mention of the IPCC report that had stated that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching “net zero” around 2050.
The two policies were compared as though one party promised to build ten new roads while the other was planning to build five. Instead the media seized on demands for the cost to the economy of the ALP’s plan to cut emissions by 45 per cent below 2005 levels. It was a spurious demand—one that is never provided in any election costings because including second-round effects of policy is a fast track to idiocy due to the uncertainties involved. But even the question meant the issue was not being framed in ‘balanced’ terms no matter how hard the journalists may have been trying to make it.
When Leigh Sales interviewed Bill Shorten, she suggested, ‘I don’t assume there’s no cost to doing nothing. I accept your position that there’s a long-term benefit. What I’m asking you to do is to square with the voters about exactly what the short-term cost is of getting to that position.’ But such a position is illogical unless you believe the long-term and short-term costs are comparable.
The ALP planned to reduce emissions by 45 per cent; the LNP by 26–28 per cent but due to their inclusion of carry-over credits it meant the target was closer to a 15 per cent cut. Sure, that will ‘cost less’ but it’s like arguing a car maker is saving money by not including seat belts, airbags or even decent brakes and thinking the two cars are comparable: ‘I accept your position that there’s a long-term benefit in these safety features. What I’m asking you to do is to square with the voters about exactly what the short-term cost is of installing them now.’
So a major report from the UN, which stated we have to ensure things are done within 12 years or we face a very strong probability of major changes to our way of life, was deemed not important enough to warrant high coverage during an election campaign. But by cripes at least they did spend time covering the issue of death taxes—a policy no party contesting the election had as a policy. Bravo to balance.
Worse, however, is when journalists who shout to the world they are balanced seek to discredit climate change through what they pretend is neutral, objective reasoning. Back in 2008 Chris Uhlmann told Barrie Cassidy on Insiders that, ‘When the weather department can tell me what the weather is going to be like next Friday with any certainty and Treasury can get within a million dollars of what the surplus is going to be next year, I’ll believe an economic model that marries those two things and casts them out over 100 years.’ You would have to work hard to use just 55 words to better display the failure of detached political journalism.
In addition to being wrong about the ability to predict next week’s weather, Uhlmann throws in the complete non sequitur of needing to predict a surplus next year as if that is similar to how economists predict growth over 100 years. Even worse, he demanded accuracy within a million dollars, which, given the budget deficit at the time of $27 billion, meant demanding 99.99 per cent accuracy!
This from a journalist who on hearing of the South Australian blackout in September 2016 immediately went on television and incorrectly announced, ‘What we understand at the moment is that those turbines aren’t turning because the wind is blowing too fast.’ Accuracy is for others to achieve, the balanced journalist just asks questions, seeks answers, muddies the waters. Uhlmann was wrong, even though he later did all he could to suggest he wasn’t really alleging such things; that he was just worried about the ‘role South Australia’s heavy reliance on wind had played in the shutdown’.
When the Australian Energy Regulator in 2019 sued four owners of windfarms for their role in the blackout, Uhlmann took to Twitter to gloat that he had been vindicated. Yet the suit has nothing to with renewable power’s ability to generate electricity at critical times. It is about a technical safety setting those windfarms had in place that was set ‘to disconnect or reduce turbine output when between three to six disturbances are detected within a defined time period’. Not all windfarms in 2016 shut down—only the ones with this setting—and after the event these settings were changed.
In March 2017 when a transmitter exploded in the Torrens Island power station, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) noted the ‘close similarities’ between that and the event in September 2016. And yet this time because of the changed settings, AEMO noted ‘all wind farms in SA successfully rode through a series of three transmission faults in short succession on 3 March, indicating the changes made to their protection system since 28 September 2016 have been successful’.
But still we have the Australian and others reporting Energy Minister Angus Taylor saying of the suit, ‘it also means that solar and wind need to be backed up appropriately, so when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, customers know that when they flick the switch, the lights come on’—even though the court case has nothing at all to do with renewable energy needing to be ‘backed up’.
For such matters, people are better advised to search out websites written by specialist journalists and experts on the issue, such as Renew Economy, than putting their blind faith in many traditional media outlets. Rather than hear from experts, the media landscape is more likely to give weight to the amateur or the celebrity—and we see this every week in panel shows such as Q&A. On 17 June this year a special ‘scientists only’ episode of Q&A was a rare occasion of the show featuring experts talking about the things in which they are expert.
One of the panel, climate scientist David Karoly, told how he had spent ten years seeking to disprove that greenhouse gases were causing climate change. Instead he found ‘fingerprints’ that showed the warming was due to emissions rather than other factors such as solar activity. It was news the ABC and any decent news organisation should be providing to the public.
Seven days later on the very same program, Ash Belsar, a man with no qualifications in science and on the program as a ‘people’s panellist’, stated ‘there’s a very fair, reasonable, and justified suspicion with people in the public that we’re not getting the full picture, and that if someone had an alternative view on climate change, maybe it’s not heard’. He continued, ‘And the fundamentals of it with science is if science isn’t questioned, and it isn’t scrutinised, it’s clearly not real science.’ At no point did the program’s host Tony Jones break in to remind people that an expert in the field just seven days earlier had detailed evidence that the science had been questioned and proven.
Our detached model of journalism lives in the present—giving the same questions about climate change credence in an endless cycle purely because a politician asks them. As the former Chief Scientist of Australia Ian Chubb wrote in July to the minister for environment, ‘The tactic of sowing doubt works, because there can be reluctance to change policy or regulation in the face of doubt. But absolute certainty is rare. It does not mean that what we know is wrong.’
It is impossible to hold detached impartiality when one side is refusing to play by the rules—happy to claim reality is false, or to suggest the long-term costs on inadequate action are equivalent to the short-term cost of action. Climate change is unlike any other issue; there is no ‘choice’, it doesn’t pause while politicians and government get their act together, and the damage cannot be undone. We are on the Titanic, only we know we are going to hit the iceberg. The journalists on board are asking an officer who argues the ship should change direction, ‘What is the cost of pursuing a course that will see passengers arrive a couple of days late?’
No other scientific issue in history has received as much attention and perusal from the media and non-scientists. No-one pays a retired businessperson or politician or historian to write about the latest cancer studies, and yet rare is the day when some such person is not given space to air their views on climate change. The deniers have had more than 30 years to make their case. They have failed. As with racism, we have to stop thinking both sides on climate change have a valid argument to make: journalism should stop accepting a false balance.
All it does is give credibility to conspiracy—because if climate change is a crisis, if we really do only have at best till 2030 to get our emissions on a path that will keep temperature rises below 1.5°C, then why the hell wouldn’t that be the story that dominates all others? Rather than wanting a specific cost of the cut of 45 per cent emissions, the real neutral position should be debating which party has the most efficient policy for achieving those cuts. That is a position worth being in the middle of, instead we were in the middle of a debate over how cutting emissions by 45 per cent might cost more than cutting by 15 per cent.
Balance only matters if there is clear merit on both sides of the argument.
• • •
So what to do?
First we must acknowledge the role the media has played in the various failures of the public conversation: the rise of extremism and racism, and inaction on climate change.
One of the clear consequences about the rise of Donald Trump is that it put an end to those late-night discussions about ‘whether it could happen here’.
Trump of course is not Hitler but the ease with which Trump manipulated the media and revelled in lies and white-supremacist rhetoric and invoked a cult of personality has destroyed any notion that the media would be able to act as a bulwark to another Hitler. But we already knew this because the media has been utterly unable to reckon with the power of politicians willing to peddle lies about climate change—hindered by media outlets willing to repeat those lies, and because ‘neutral’ media outlets have failed to see that neutrality does not counteract a negative force.
And let us not pretend News Corp is neutral.
In October 2018, the day after around 200,000 people protested around the country in a ‘climate strike’, the Adelaide Advertiser was the only News Corp paper to feature the event on its front page. The Daily Telegraph ran with a story that suggested Greens activists from the north shore had scuttled a coal mine project in Bylong Valley.
This is not a debate where neutrality will win the day. There have been signs of a shift. The Conversation moved in September to no longer allow climate change denial in its comments section. Guardian Australia, in line with its British parent organisation, has amended its style guide to use ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ in place of climate change to be more in line with the urgency of scientists around the issue. And it has long refused to accord clear denialism the status of ‘scepticism’.
For too long we have allowed the ignorant to get their way by abusing a system of journalism that was supposed to be about revealing and reporting the truth. Instead it has substituted the pursuit of truth for the pursuit of balance. The shift away from the balanced neutral position will be difficult. The ABC’s former head of editorial policy, Alan Sunderland, suggested as much when he left the broadcaster, saying that ‘journalism is at risk when it gets drawn into partisanship and a demand that we take sides and declare who we are barracking for’.
And yet I wouldn’t argue for that. I am barracking for truth and context. I am also arguing for a higher bar to be cleared before presenting something as news or an opinion worthy of being heard—in a sense a return to the type of standards once held by traditional media organisations.
In the past the problem was the lack of diversity in the media room, not the standards. Now with greater diversity (but with a need for more) we need to care more about what draws our attention. It’s not good enough for journalism just to fling everything on the wall and see what sticks.
Guardian Australia took the view during the same-sex marriage plebiscite not to publish articles arguing the vote would be a slippery slope to bestiality, for example. That meant it did not publish all views, but it was merely an editorial stance that reckoned with the reality of the issue, rather than the delusions and cynical extremism of the prejudiced.
I know the media will always gravitate towards a fight. But we should not go searching for one—or worse, invent fights just so we journalists can sit in the middle and bathe in the shallow and tepid waters of neutrality. Is it really our role to ask Greens senators whether they intend to introduce a ‘death tax’, ALP MPs why they are unfairly taxing retirees, and members of the Liberal Party whether they intend to ‘privatise Medicare’? Surely there is more to our role than confronting one side of politics with the other side’s talking points, all in the interest of ‘giving them a chance to respond’.
We also need to be much more honest about the work being done in the name of ‘journalism’ by news outlets—including those that employ you. All media outlets have output of varying quality, but when climate change denial and pandering to extremism is a core part of the business model it is not enough just to say that you do good work. You might do good work, but the standard you walk past each day must eventually be the standard you accept.
Above all we have to be brave enough to stand up for truth and context and to be more concerned about being called out for ignorance than for bias. Balance will not save us, balance will not hold anyone to account if we accept lies and conspiracy as a valid part of the debate.
Be bold and stand up for your profession. Make it count. Ask yourself: do you really want to be responding to people in 2050 who ask what you did with all your power as a journalist at a time when politicians began to be comfortable with extremism and were pretending climate change action was futile with, ‘Well I stayed neutral, I stayed balanced’?
Greg Jericho writes on economics for Guardian Australia and lectures in journalism at the University of Canberra. He won the Walkley Award for Commentary, Analysis and Critique in 2016.